Richard Feynman was one of the 20th century’s greatest physicists. Even though the following five quotes¹ are brief, they reveal that he was also interested in, and a profound thinker about, the philosophy of science and the nature of the scientific quest.
- “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts”. It would be interesting to know exactly what he meant by this one. It sounds as though he is talking about some scientists’ unwarranted faith in the truth of what those from other disciplines believe. This is something that I’ve noticed in my readings, the problem being that the tendency towards specialisation means that individual scientists cannot keep up with all the latest developments in fields other than their own. They therefore accept the findings and statements of others on trust. However, the quote could also be about the public’s attitude to science, their blind faith in it. In the current pandemic, for example, we are told repeatedly that the government is “acting upon the best scientific advice”, and we are therefore supposed to accept this unquestioningly. Another example would be slogans like “In Science We Trust” as ‘proof’ that God does not exist.
- However, Feynman cautions doubt: “If you thought that science was certain — well, that is just an error on your part”. How many scientists, however, insist that current beliefs are the truth? I am reminded especially of the assured self-confidence of people like Steven Pinker², and the dogmatic statements made by (neo-)Darwinian biologists in recent times: Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, Julian Huxley etc. In their world even the phrase ‘central dogma’, reminiscent of Church language, has been used.
- Rather than be satisfied with current ‘truth’, however, Feynman is constantly looking for that something which will break the established rules, that will move scientific thinking forward: “The thing that doesn’t fit is the thing that is most interesting”. According to the scientific method, an established ‘law’ is assumed to be correct until anomalies are found which cannot be accommodated within its framework. Then a new theory or paradigm is needed. I am reminded of something the great American psychologist William James said, that it only takes one white crow to disprove the theory that all crows are black.
- Feynman clearly thinks that science is an ongoing process of discovery, but that there may actually be limits to what can be discovered: “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned”. Science is the, often passionate, quest for truth about the nature of things, and it is a good thing, on the whole, that scientists have an unquenchable thirst for this. There are, however, some things which we will perhaps never know, and Feynman accepts this, rather than pretend dogmatically that we currently have all the answers.
This is especially relevant to one of the themes of my writing, the battle against scientific materialism. Because science and the scientific method can really only deal with the physical universe — that which can be seen, controlled, and experimented upon — it is therefore possibly extremely limited. Instead of accepting this, however, which is what Feynman is advocating, materialistic science claims that the physical universe with its apparent laws is all that there is, and that any attempt to suggest otherwise is non-scientific, pseudoscientific, or even worse ‘mystical’. In recent times this has been especially true of neuroscience (which focuses on the brain, claiming that it is the source of consciousness, and which frequently denies the existence of the self), and biology (which forces the evolution of life to be seen through aggressively materialist, neo-Darwinian eyes). Fortunately physics is leading the way out of this prison. Here the physicists Fred Alan Wolf and Bob Toben are adopting the attitude of which Feynman approves: “We only know that there is something other than space-time but we don’t know what it is, because beyond space-time is nonphysical, unmeasurable”³.
- Perhaps my favourite Feynman quote is: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool”. How many scientists know this, or have even considered it? Should the first part of any scientific training be a course in psychology, self-awareness, psychoanalysis, and the human tendency towards self-deception? I’m sure the scientific world would be a better place if it were.
1. They can all be found on this webpage: https://www.azquotes.com/author/4774-Richard_P_Feynman
2. A recent book of his is called Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress (Penguin, 2018), in which he claims that the latest ‘Enlightenment’ science, which is materialist and atheistic, is the truth. He says (p29): “Who could be against reason, science, humanism, or progress?”, suggesting that anyone who disagrees with him must be stupid.
3. Space-Time and Beyond, Bantam, 1983, p56